Should You Use Chase Points for Flights — Or Cash?

Use miles to save money, but consider cash if you want to earn more miles or have specific redemptions in mind.
JT Genter
By JT Genter 

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One question that we often get is, when should you use your miles or pay cash for flights?

In the case of airline miles, the decision depends on your valuation of those miles, and then it comes down to a bit of math. However, the answer is a lot more complicated when considering transferrable point currencies like Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

That's because Chase points are very flexible. You can transfer Ultimate Rewards® points to 11 airline and three hotel partners, or you can redeem points for travel through the Ultimate Rewards® portal. Alternatively, you can redeem points at an elevated rate for gift cards. Worst case, you can redeem points for cash back at 1 cent per point.

Whether you took advantage of an excellent sign-up bonus or have built your point balance over time, you'll want to use those points wisely. So, should Chase cardholders use points or cash to book flights? Let's review some aspects to consider when making that decision.

Factors to consider

Your travel goals

When deciding between booking travel with Ultimate Rewards® points or paying out-of-pocket, consider what you want to get out of your points and miles.

In short, what is your main motivator for collecting travel rewards in the first place?

  • If your goal is to save money on travel, default to using your points whenever you can. If redeeming the points as airline miles via a transfer doesn't provide much value, book through the Ultimate Rewards® portal instead.

  • If your motivation is to travel in ways that you wouldn't pay cash for, consider saving your points to use for that next incredible experience.

Say that flying Singapore Airlines first class is on your travel bucket list. This isn't an experience that you want to book with cash. For example, a Singapore first-class flight from New York to Frankfurt costs $6,563. That same flight can be booked on points for just 86,000 KrisFlyer miles (an Ultimate Rewards® transfer partner) plus $5.60 in taxes and fees. That's a redemption rate of over 7.6 cents per mile.

For Chase Sapphire Reserve® holders, those 86,000 points are worth $1,290 when redeemed in the Ultimate Rewards® portal. That's still more than many may want to pay for a single flight.

So, make sure that you value the experience of sipping champagne in a private suite on Singapore Airlines at more than $1,290 before giving up the opportunity to use those points to book a lot of other travel.

How often you travel

If you jet off to a new destination each month, you'll want to be more strategic about when you use points versus paying out-of-pocket for flights. After all, you may be able to use your points at a higher redemption rate on your next trip. You may even build an upcoming trip to take advantage of a redemption sweet spot.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Use the NerdWallet travel calculator to quickly see if you should book an award with cash or miles.

However, for travelers who travel once or twice a year, there's less of an incentive to save your points for the next trip. Rather than sitting on a points balance, it's better to redeem them and save now.

Just make sure to weigh the best use of your points. Perhaps it's best to pay cash for your flights so you can maximize your Chase points through a hotel redemption.

Your points earnings

Another factor to consider is how many points and miles you earn through credit card spending and travel.

Are you a high spender or small-business owner who's able to earn a ton of points and miles? If so, you may have more points than you know what to do with. If that’s the case, you don't need to worry about saving your points for a better redemption. Instead, just focus on the best way of using your points for each booking — whether that's via the travel portal or by transferring to travel partners.

If your earning rate is low, you may want to be a lot more strategic about using your existing points and miles balance. Rather than redeeming points for a fixed redemption rate through the Ultimate Rewards® portal, consider waiting until you can redeem points for an outsized value.

Elite status benefits and goals (or lack thereof)

For frequent travelers, another consideration is elite status earnings and benefits. When booking a flight using airline miles, you won't earn credits toward elite status. And you may not even be able to enjoy all of your elite status perks.

For example, you can book American Airlines awards through British Airways for as few as 7,500 Avios each way. However, American's terms and conditions restrict AAdvantage members from utilizing their elite benefits when booking awards through partner airlines. By booking an award through British Airways, AAdvantage elites won't get elite perks like upgrades, priority boarding and extra-legroom seats.

This aspect may tilt the scales on how you book your flights. Thankfully, you still have a couple of options. You can either use Ultimate Rewards® points to book a flight through the travel portal or use your credit card to earn more points. You'll earn elite status credits either way.

Whether it might be better to earn points instead

In the past, Chase travel purchases were pretty straightforward. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card cardholders earned 2x points and the Chase Sapphire Reserve® earned 3x on travel purchases.

That's not the case anymore. Chase recently improved the earning rates for Sapphire cardholders when booking travel with cash through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal.

Now, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card earns 5x points on travel purchases through the Chase portal — excluding hotel purchases where you use the $50 Anniversary Hotel Credit.

Those with the Chase Sapphire Reserve® will earn 5x points on flights — after using the $300 annual travel credit — and a whopping 10x points on hotel purchases on travel purchases in the Chase portal.

These improved earning rates may change your math on when to use points or cash. If you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you may want to redeem points for your flights but book your hotel through the Ultimate Rewards® portal to earn 10x points. Just remember that you won't be able to earn elite status credits or enjoy elite perks when booking through the portal.

How to use Chase points for flights smartly

There are many factors to consider before you redeem Chase points for travel. For many travelers, the default should be to use your points for a trip — whether that's by transferring points to travel partners or redeeming through the Ultimate Rewards® travel portal.

However, you may want to book cash rates:

  • To save your points for an incredible redemption.

  • If you travel often and can use points for a higher redemption rate soon.

  • If you don't see yourself earning many points going forward.

  • If you want to earn elite status credits or enjoy elite status perks.

  • If you want to earn bonus points by booking travel through the Ultimate Rewards® portal.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:

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